Thai Food | USA vs Thailand
Thai food found in the United States is vastly different than the food found in Thailand, even in American restaurants that claim to be serving “authentic” Thai food and are owned and operated by Thai people. The reasons for the differences include the level of spiciness associated with the food, the area of Thailand that the United States Thai restaurant owner is from, the freshness of the ingredients and the social experience.
After visiting and living in Thailand for a number of years, the first thing that you notice when eating Thai food in the United States is the lack of spiciness to the food, even if you request it to be served Thai style. The reason for this is that Thai restaurants are reluctant to serve food that is too spicy, as Americans are just not use to eating food served that way and will either not eat the food or will not return. As a result, I often find the food to be somewhat bland, which causes the restaurant problems as well. I have not been back to several Thai restaurants in the Washington D.C. area because the food was bland. I found that the cook had forgotten where they come from and had been in the United States too long!
In an effort to strike a happy medium, some restaurants have initiated a spiciness level to help the customer determine what is right for them. Thai Basil, which is my favorite Thai restaurant outside of Washington D.C., and was featured on an episode of “Throw Down with Bobby Flay”, has labeled which dishes are going to be naturally spicy. The customer can also add the number of “chilies” that they want to increase the spiciness. There is also the “spicy tray” that is brought out to allow the customer to further add various spices and chili to further flavor the food. By the way, the Owner of Thai Basil, spanked Bobby Flay in a Pad Thai throw down.
Also impacting the differences between Thai restaurants in the United States and Thailand is where the owner and cooking staff of the Thai restaurant is from in Thailand. I have found that most of the Thai restaurants in the United States are owned and operated by Thais from primarily Bangkok. Bangkok is the considered to be the hub of the upper class or “hiso” people of Thailand and the other areas of Thailand being the lower class of people or “loso”. Most Thais that get visas and relocate to the United States are from Bangkok, because they have the financial means to immigrate to the United States and set up a restaurant. As a result, the food found in most Thai restaurants in the United States is Bangkok style and does not incorporate the other food ingredients and cooking styles found in the other provinces of Thailand. As my wife is from Northeast Thailand, I really like the influence of the “Issan” on Thai food.
The third big difference in the food is the lack of freshness in the ingredients. Most Thai restaurants in the United States, as well as other restaurants in the United States are buying food through a food distributor, who is buying food in bulk. Often the meat is frozen, as are some of the vegetables. In Thailand a vast majority of food ingredients are purchased at the local market on a daily basis. Due to various federal and state and local laws concerning the preparation of food, this is just not possible for Thai restaurants in the United States to do, which is regrettable. The freshness of the ingredients is key to memorable Thai food.
In Thailand, there are fresh food markets everywhere and it is an experience in itself and not to be missed if you are ever fortunate enough to travel to Thailand. Supermarkets, as well as department stores are typically only found in areas where expats live or tourists visit, so the market is the primary place to buy everything. Families, as well as restaurant owners and street vendors are going to the markets daily to buy meat, fruits and vegetables. Picture a farmer’s market on a Saturday morning in your time except that the Thai market is larger, has much more to offer, the food is cheaper, it is open all day, it is open everyday and they are all over the place. No premiums here on organically grown foods!
Everything is fresh and cheap and is readily available. The chicken you buy was slaughtered this morning and so was the pig for the pork. The produce was picked yesterday. The fish was caught last night. The markets are everywhere and are open from early morning until late at night. One thing that many westerners will find unsettling is the lack of refrigeration for meat, although seafood is kept on ice. At first I was a bit shocked when I would see meat outside, but soon learned that it was fresh and that it was OK to eat.
The fourth difference between Thai food in Thailand and in the United States is the entire social experience surrounding the food and the meal. Although not directly related to the food, the whole social experience of eating in Thailand is not to be underestimated. Meals are eaten with other people and meals are not to be missed. It is strange to say this but eating in Thailand is like a religious experience.
In American restaurants, patrons sit at tables or in booths that are a comfortable distance apart from the other patrons. There is no interaction with other patrons, little interaction with the service staff and even less interaction with the cooking staff. The patron is pretty much on their own. In short everything in the eating experience is well scripted and well rehearsed, which is not the case in restaurants in Thailand.
In Thailand restaurants there is no script, no schedule. My favorite noodle soup restaurant, which is basically a grouping of plastic tables and stools around a food cart, opens around sundown, plus or minus an hour or two. Sometimes they decide to take the day off and it does not impact their business because the food is so good they are always full whenever they are open.
Enjoy Thai Food in Thailand!
In Thailand, most restaurants are small open-air establishments where the patrons are a mixture of Thais with some foreigners or “faralangs” as foreigners are called. Tables are typically relatively primitive as well as the seating and everyone is seated in tight quarters. When my wife and I go out we will sit at a table across from each other and often there is someone else in a seat beside you so close that you are touching elbows. Often you will see complete strangers talking with each other while they are waiting for their food as well as while they are eating. Thai people are very friendly and happy; they always seem to have a smile on their face, so it is easy to engage the person next to you. Often when my wife and I are out, it is not long before my wife has struck up a conversation with someone next to us. I am typically a quiet person, but also have found myself to be much more outgoing when dining in Thailand.
The service staff and cook staff are in many cases the same person or at least related to each other. You will find many husband / wife teams that own and operate restaurants in Thailand. Once you get to know them and are a regular customer, they really will take care of you and will remember what your favorite dishes are. Unlike most restaurants in the United States, in Thailand your food is cooked right in front of you, as there is usually no separate kitchen. Want something or need something? Just raise your hand and call out what you want. No need to be shy!
There is nothing like Thai food, especially if you can get it in Thailand. Although not everyone can get to Thailand because of the cost as well as the distance, try to find as authentic restaurant in your city and give it a try. If you are lucky enough to have a Thai festival in your town, definitely go as often they will be serving really authentic Thai food because of the number of Thai people attending.
The key to finding a good Thai restaurant is to look at the menu to see if they will prepare the food with a varying degree of spiciness. Take the spiciness in small steps to find what is right for you. Do not be afraid to turn up the “heat” on Thai food, because that is the way it is suppose to be made and consumed! By the way, the best way to cool down your mouth if it is too spicy is a glass of water at room temperature or a glass of Singha beer!